If you want innovation you need innovators. Innovators are people who can imagine and bring into existence what has not previously existed. So where are you going to find them and should you be looking for a particular age demographic?

Many people confuse innovation with technological innovation. If you conflate the two you run two big risks – you won’t be looking for the right people and you won’t be looking in the right place. Why? You’re more likely to assume innovators will be young as the new generation will be more technologically savvy. Second you’ll probably miss numerous opportunites to innovate because you won’t recognize breakthroughs as innovations and you won’t see how they might apply to what you’re doing.

Innovation Example #1 – “The grandmother effect”
As the US incarcerates ever more of its citizens suppose we could reduce the present 50% recidivism rate to less than 10% by doing things differently with people while in prison. Would you be interested?

It’s already been done consistently – by an 81 year old grandmother in Kansas. SuEllen Freid started visiting Lansing Correctional Facility in 1980. She helped develop and for many years has run a prison program called “Reaching out from Within”. It helps prisoners work with one another in groups to address their issues and become kinder, more empathetic people. As one of the inmates said in a recent report “SuEllen has a grandmother effect on people”.

Bit too fluffy for you? Not when you look at the stats. The recidivism rate among those murderers, robbers and rapists who regularly attend the program consistently drops to below 10%. That’s why the program has now been rolled out to every prison in Kansas. Talk about ROI!

Innovation Example #2 – Inventing a country
Imagining a new form of government and creating one nation out of thirteen colonies definitely qualifies as innovative. You might describe this enterprise as the ultimate start-up. However, the IPO was a very close run thing and had its fair share of backstabbing and betrayal before collaboration, innovation and sheer determination won the day. And the ‘management team’? A wildly disparate group whose ages spanned the human life cycle. Here’s how old they were on July 4 1776:

  • Marquis de Lafayette, 18
  • James Monroe, 18
  • Aaron Burr, 20
  • John Marshall, 20
  • Alexander Hamilton, 21*
  • James Madison, 25
  • John Paul Jones, 28
  • Benjamin Rush, 30
  • John Jay, 30
  • Abigail Adams, 31
  • Nathanael Greene, 33
  • Thomas Jefferson, 33
  • Thomas Paine, 39
  • John Hancock, 39
  • Patrick Henry, 40
  • John Adams, 40
  • Paul Revere, 41
  • John Dickinson, 43
  • George Washington, 44
  • Friedrich von Steuben, 45
  • Comte de Rochambeau, 51
  • Samuel Adams, 53
  • Benjamin Franklin, 70

(* a matter of some conjecture as he may well have been even younger).

Implications and applications

  • If you want access to innovative thinking and innovative thinkers you’ll need to keep an open mind about where you’re going to find them.
  • If you want to maximize your opportunities of finding innovative thinking and innovative thinkers start thinking outside your own particular innovation box. Deliberately seek out both in areas where you wouldn’t normally think of looking.
  • Be alert to examples that crop up in areas outside your own field of expertise and consider what applications might follow in your particular area. Who knows what new ideas this will trigger?
  • As the most recent work coming out of neuroscience makes clear, in this way you begin to create the possibility of making new neural connections in your own brain – and this is critical to maximizing your own innovative potential.